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NO-ONE paid a lot of attention at the time — except perhaps in Moscow. Last autumn the governments of the United States and Ukraine signed an agreement on “deepening strategic defence co-operation.”
An explicitly anti-Russian treaty, it aimed at “the enhancement of US-Ukraine strategic defence and security co-operation and the advancement of shared priorities, deepening co-operation in areas such as Black Sea security, cyber defence, and intelligence sharing, and countering Russian aggression,” in the words of the official communique.
Yes, Nato was in there, repeating standard formulae that “the United States supports Ukraine’s right to decide its own future foreign policy course free from outside interference, including with respect to Ukraine’s aspirations to join Nato.”
However, the fixation on Nato in the present crisis has perhaps masked something else — the bilateral US-Ukraine military relationship, something which could appear just as threatening viewed from Russia as full Ukrainian integration into the Nato alliance might have done.
The treaty showered Ukraine with state-of-the art weaponry and military support. To quote the text again: “The United States is announcing a new 60 million dollar security assistance package, including additional Javelin anti-armour systems. The United States has committed 2.5 billion dollars in support of Ukraine’s forces since 2014, including more than 400 million” in 2021 alone.
The agreement included “a framework for pursuing bilateral armaments and military-technical co-operation,” a pledged continuation of a “robust training and exercise programme in keeping with Ukraine’s status as a Nato Enhanced Opportunities Partner” as well as co-operation in cybersecurity and space security.
Some pundits have argued that this agreement was the final straw for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Not only was the Nato door left open, but the US military was moving into the immediate neighbourhood in any case.
Certainly, since there was no immediate rationale for Russia’s invasion in February — no direct fresh provocation — it is a plausible theory.
The Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders began directly after the treaty’s conclusion.
Be that as it may, Ukraine has been at the centre of a tug-of-war between Russia on the one hand and the US and the European Union on the other for 30 years. Putin’s aggression is the latest, and most tragic, episode in that struggle.
It is important to note that this framing of the question does not seek to provide a monocausal explanation of the present crisis. That would be to deny any agency to the peoples and rulers of Ukraine, and the part that they have played, for good and ill, in bringing matters to their present pass. Ukraine is not simply a plaything of external powers and its people will have their say.
However, internal politics have interacted with great power plans for many years, not least in 2014 when an insurrection against the elected president, a movement with both democratic and fascist-nationalist components, united with pressure from the US and the EU to produce a coup, the consequences of which have destabilised the country ever since.
From the Russian side, Putin has emphasised the deep historic ties between Russia and Ukraine. These are real, even if they do not lead to Putin’s conclusion that Ukraine has no capacity for independent sovereignty.
Ukraine is also clearly a matter of security interest to Russia, its immediate neighbour, given its history of invasions from the west, and the large Russian minority living there.
More prosaically, Ukraine’s economy was tightly integrated with the Russian in Soviet times and, given its size and level of industrial development, those connections are of obvious interest to the oligarchic regime in Moscow.
Ukraine is much further away from western Europe, never mind the US. But attempts to draw it into the orbit of Washington and the EU have been just as purposeful.
As long ago as 1992, when the corpse of the USSR was still warm and the honeyed pledges given to Russia about Nato non-expansion still fresh, the Pentagon made its position clear.
In a defence planning document it said that the main aim of security policy should be to obstruct the emergence of any potential rival — “either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere” — to the suddenly unipolar power of the US.
This full-spectrum global strategy included seeking “to prevent the emergence of European-only security arrangements which would undermine Nato” and the US guaranteeing eastern Europe against Russia, with the rapid extension of the EU into the region being the first step.
All this came to pass and the prostrate, looted Russia of the 1990s, its state corrupted by oligarch overreach and its economy in freefall, could do little about it. And things went further. The Project for a New American Century brought together the neoconservative wing of the US foreign policy elite and is best remembered for promoting the disastrous Iraq war.
It also however aggressively pressed Nato expansion on the grounds that this could deter any future rising power — Russia was mentioned — from challenging US global hegemony.
And Nato expansion followed, first in central and eastern Europe, later in the Balkans and in the former Soviet republics of the Baltics.
Ukraine remained the larger prize. Severed from Ukraine, Russia could never hope to challenge US power in Europe. Hence the frenzied activity of US diplomacy when, in 2014, Ukraine’s elected president preferred to sign an economic deal with Russia rather than the EU.
In truth, a Russian economic orientation made a degree of sense, not as a means of blocking ties with Europe, but as reflecting the long-standing economic integration of the two countries through the Soviet period.
The US administration did all it could to overturn this decision, allying with internal Ukrainian forces ranging from the liberal to the armed fascist to do so.
This shattered whatever fragile stability Ukrainian politics had developed and led directly to both Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the attempted secession by the Russian-speaking peoples of Donetsk and Lugansk provinces, the latter remaining an unresolved crisis for eight years.
In turn, Nato escalated its anti-Russian mobilisation. It deployed four battalions to eastern Europe, rotating troops through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to confront speculative future Russian incursions. These were joined by two US army tank brigades deployed to Poland in September 2017.
In March 2018, the US provided anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, starting the supply of lethal weaponry, and in October 2018 Ukraine joined the United States and seven other Nato countries in a series of major air exercises over western Ukraine. And Nato powers (including Britain) have undertaken military training missions.
So the question of Ukraine’s Nato membership is not simply one for the future. It is true that nothing has formally moved forward since it was first mooted in 2008. But in practice there has been an escalating degree of integration of Ukraine into US/Nato planning for some time.
As with almost every other aspect of the crisis, this will only have been worsened by Putin’s lawless aggression, however it now ends.
Nato has been consolidated around US leadership, and is looking at a huge escalation of military spending in Europe, with Germany in the forefront.
Doubtless further reinforcements will be deployed eastwards. And the mere fact that the use of nuclear weapons has been discussed in the current conflict should alarm everybody.
There is a huge agenda for the anti-war movement to confront here, beyond pushing for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine, the withdrawal of Russian troops and a negotiated settlement that must include the abandonment of Nato membership for Ukraine.
Stop the War long warned that the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya (many of them fought under the Nato umbrella, dispelling any idea that it is a defensive alliance) were likely only precursors to great power conflict.
That stage has now arrived. Mobilising a powerful anti-war movement, directed first of all against Britain’s belligerent and provocative policies, is more important than ever.
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